In the nonprofit world there is always a tension in how to best articulate the results, impact, and success that you and/or your organization is having on the world. Grants and corporate donors usually want cold, hard numbers–quantitative “proof” that you are effecting change in the most efficient way possible. They want to know that 463 children have been given school supplies, that 1,625 families have received food, that 36 community programs have been created. They want to know that their money is going to good, measurable, use.
This need for metrics is very understandable, especially in our world where philanthropic organizations are many and sources of funding are often few and far between. That being said, however, this demand for tangible results is not always feasible for many of us in the nonprofit field. An example of this can be seen in my current capacity, serving as the Benefits Enrollment Centers Program Manager. There are certain numbers of clients that we need to screen for benefits (such as SNAP, Medicaid, energy assistance, etc.) and consequently assist with applications in order to meet the goals that were laid out for us in our agreement with the National Council on Aging (NCOA-who funded the grant for this program). While this is extremely important because it enables us to put an actual dollar amount on the impact that we are making, it does not capture the whole picture.
It does not accurately demonstrate the hours that I spend providing case management to Rosa, a disabled senior who needs resources ranging from adult diapers to clothing vouchers to housing application assistance. Nor does it account for the hours that my team and I spend being relational with our clients, attempting to get to know them better in order to form a more comprehensive, strength-based approach to how to empower them to change their circumstances. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The need to “make the numbers” leads us away from holistic services and leads us towards treating our clients in an assembly-line fashion. Please do not get me wrong, even in this cog in the machine approach we are providing quality service–doing screenings, submitting correct and complete applications, assisting our clients. But, to me, it feels like just the bare minimum. A small, Johnson & Johnson Band Aid on a gaping wound.
This disconnect between funding and perceived impact and/or success was even more apparent to me when I was working in Costa Rica. Working for a missions organization, my salary was dependent upon individual donors who felt as though the work I was doing was making enough of a difference that they should support me using their hard-earned money. In order to keep them connected to my work, I would send out a quarterly email summarizing the highs and the lows, the successes and failures, that I had recently encountered. And it was through this practice, and specifically the on-going mentorship and work with one young lady, that I realized that I had no idea how to define success.
I met Nicole my first week in Costa Rica. With her stoic face and combative demeanor, I knew from the beginning that we would have an interesting relationship. I would wager that I spent hundreds of hours of my two and a half years in Costa Rica with Nicole. Talking with her, making goal and action plans with her, laughing with her, helping her to fill out forms for school (which I doubt were ever turned in), talking about novelas with her. Nicole was one of my favorites.
Nicole was a newly minted teenager, but had already lived more life than most. I quickly learned that her home life was a mess–one of the oldest of eight children with her father in prison, Nicole had been traded and sold for sex since she was a little girl in order to provide bags of rice and other necessities for her family. She had dropped out of school long before reaching sixth grade and spent most of her time in the streets, chasing after older men, consuming illicit substances, lying compulsively and getting into fights whenever possible. I often wondered, what would the world, specifically the Christian world in this context, consider a success story for Nicole? I would imagine it would look something like her coming to know Jesus, returning to school and continuing her education, helping to inspire her family and raise them up out of poverty, and living a productive, “normal” life.
Well, that is not what has happened–at least not what has happened yet. Shortly after returning to the states, I heard that Nicole had gotten shot. She had been hanging out with her ex-convict boyfriend and had gotten in the crossfire of men who were trying to kill him for stealing from them. She was rushed to the hospital and after many hours in critical condition, thankfully made a full recovery. Last I heard, she was pregnant with the same guy’s baby–unemployed and roaming the streets as much as ever.
So I guess if you look at the metrics of Nicole’s story, the ROI was really horrible. Terrible. The impact, from a surface level, was negative in nature. That was not an efficient or effective use of hundreds of hours of my time. Her story was an overwhelming failure.
But that is where I take issue with measuring success, and how it is done in our society especially in the nonprofit world. Because in so many ways–ways that can not be graphed or pulled for a monthly report–Nicole’s story was, and is, one of success.
I will never forget the warm Sunday night that I was sitting in my small apartment in Las Fuentes, having the great internal debate between binge watching Netflix or being productive, when my phone rang. The number was blocked, and due to my terror of speaking Spanish to a stranger via cell phone, I let it go to voicemail. Then they called back. And they called back again. Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I answered. It was Nicole. She was sobbing and out of breath. “Please come now. I am at my house. We need help.”
The next few minutes were a blur as I ran down the street to the small, tin-slated house where Nicole and her family lived. A huge domestic dispute had ensued between the mother and one of the children’s father–Nicole’s mother was being restrained by neighbors, the younger children were screaming hysterically that they didn’t want to be taken away by PANI (the Costa Rican child protective services), multiple people were calling the police, and Nicole was standing by the side of the road with a knife in her hand. She turned to me, her normally flat affect contorted by pain and sadness and anger. She let the knife fall out of her hand and I ran to give her a hug. She embraced me for a moment, pushed me away, and walked off down the street, leaving the unfolding chaos.
I later learned from her older sister, Naza, that Nicole had been on the brink of stabbing the man. Naza had told her to call me, to talk to me before she did anything. And Nicole felt safe enough to do it. Whatever her thought process, she reached out to me instead of doing something that could have destroyed her life. I consider that success.
There was another time, with much less drama, when Nicole and I were talking in the back room of the Casa Verde Community Center. We were talking about God, about how much He loves us, about what He sees when He looks at us. Well, actually I was talking, and she was rolling her eyes with every other sentence I uttered. “Listen,” she finally said. “God might love you, but He doesn’t love me. I’ve done too many bad things and I don’t think I will ever be able to change.” And in that moment of vulnerability we were able to talk about how the things that she has done do not determine who she will be, or God’s love for her. We were able to talk about her inherent worth and value. That she was perfectly and wonderfully made. About the power of grace. I consider that success.
I have never encountered metrics that can accurately measure someone’s feelings when they realize that they are worth something for the first time, measure the comfort and trust that they feel to be able to reach out in moments of trauma, measure the joy and kinship that they experience in being able to share and converse with someone who will actually listen. You won’t find these things on an Annual Report. They will not be compiled in a quantitative analysis of your impact. But these things matter. These things measure our successes and failures in a way that other numbers (i.e. measuring the 463 children who have been given school supplies, that 1,625 families who have received food, and that the 36 community programs which have been created) cannot.
So I urge you to become open-minded and creative in how you view success. Especially as it is related to the issues of poverty, marginalization, and social justice. Understand that these issues are complex and multi-faceted and that we are dealing with people. People who need food and school supplies and application assistance, but people who also need to feel heard and feel safe, and to most importantly understand that they have value.